Harold Walters, Transportation Supervisor at Milford School District, recently told the Board of Education that one of the buses approved for replacement for the 2016-17 school year would be a propane-powered bus as part of a pilot program initiated by the Department of Education. The bus will be owned and operated by JL Bus Services, a subsidiary of Jor-Lin Bus Service.
“Initial interest was generated at national school transportation conferences and trade shows,” Ron Love, Director of Transportation at DOE, said. “We partnered with DNREC representatives to get additional information on propane buses which we then shared with interested contractors.
Mr. Walters said that JL Bus Service expressed an interest in operating a propane bus as part of the pilot system and that request was approved by DOE last month. Mr. Love said that DOE is trying to include multiple districts and bus sizes in order to obtain comprehensive information throughout the state, which is why Milford was chosen as one of the locations for the new bus types. Currently, propane buses are being used by Kim Hendricks in Lake Forest School District and Larkin Bus Service in Smyrna School District. In addition to Milford, Red Clay Consolidated School District will begin using the buses starting next year. Mr. Love anticipated approximately 30 propane buses will be on the road each day during the next school year.
According to a report by the United States Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Department in 2014, propane is a promising alternative fuel for school buses, even in rural areas like those in many parts of Southern Delaware. The report found that school districts could save nearly 50 percent on costs per mile compared to diesel fuel and that the cost of the propane bus, which is higher than a traditional diesel bus, can be recouped in between three to eight years.
“Although our diesel buses have emissions controls, the propane buses will operate even cleaner,” Mr. Love said. “We also believe that maintenance will be reduced. Disadvantages of propane buses do exist, however. Additional fueling stations may be required and the cost of the bus is about $8,000 higher than a traditional bus. The cost of propane is lower than diesel fuel, but propane buses get less mileage per gallon than diesel buses.”
There may also be differences in how the state reimburses contractors for propane buses over diesel buses. Currently, contractors are repaid the cost of the bus by the district over the course of seven years. They are also paid an insurance and gas allowance each day, with the gas allowance fluctuating depending on the price of gas at the time. Because propane buses are costlier than gas buses, the state will need to offer contractors who choose propane a higher reimbursement over the seven years to recoup the cost of the bus. In addition, because propane costs less per gallon, fuel reimbursement may be lower for propane than diesel.
Mr. Love said that the program is too early to know if all buses will eventually become propane-fueled. He said that Delaware Transit Corporation is currently using propane buses in their fleet, but that some contractors may prefer not to transition to the costlier propane buses, something that is their option as the bus owner. He said that DOE will monitor the pilot program to determine if using propane buses is beneficial to the state, district and contractor as the pilot program continues.